Address by Ambassador John D. Negroponte
East Auditorium, George C. Marshall Conference Center
September 30, 2010
AMBASSADOR. BRYNN: Again, I’m Edward Brynn,the acting historian, I welcome you again. I’ll apologize a little bit for the weather, but that’s the responsibility of the CIA. (Laughter.) Might I remind you if you would be so good as to turn off cell phones and that type of equipment? Again, you are now completely familiar with the badge situation. Make sure each time that you go out that you surrender your badge to the counter where you collected it, and pick it up again when you come in. Otherwise, you will fall into the same dilemma that the Kingston Trio, many years ago, sang about. It was the MTA, I think, in Boston. You’ll never get out of here.
We will start as close to 9:00 as possible with our first speaker being Ambassador Negroponte. And we’ll follow the same format that we had yesterday. His remarks will be followed by a question and answer period. We will stop precisely at 10 o’clock. That will be my job, to keep some element of discipline in this unruly crowd.
Now that the masses have been allowed in, let me repeat what I said just a few minutes ago. I will do it in special English for this group. First of all, please turn off your cell phones and other electronic devices. I have to congratulate all of you. Yesterday, I don't think there was one violation of the – of that precept. This is a very attentive crowd.
Secondly, make sure that when you go out of the Marshall area for any reason, that you surrender your badge at the desk where you picked it up and then retrieve it when you come in. If you can’t remember your name, we’ll use our backup procedures to help you in that area.
The program today will be following the same format that we used yesterday. The first part of the program will be an address by Ambassador Negroponte. I will do a brief introduction of him. He will speak. He will have time for Q&As. I will be absolutely ruthless in stopping this whole procedure at 10 o’clock so that we can stay on schedule as much as possible for the rest of the day.
Okay. Let’s begin. Again, I’m Edward Brynn, the acting historian for the – for this time. We are pleased to have you here. This is the sixth in a series of programs focusing on major events in American foreign policy. We have really enjoyed the support of the Bureau of Public Affairs and the Assistant Secretary, P.J. Crowley, and his staff. We were delighted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could join us yesterday. And of course, all of you remember the contributions of Dr. Kissinger and Ambassador Holbrooke yesterday at the beginning of the show.
This morning we are going to continue on the same level of quality. We have Ambassador John D. Negroponte, a career diplomat and national security officer who held increasingly senior U.S. government positions abroad and in Washington between 1960 and 1997, and again from 2001 to 2008. He has been ambassador to Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines, to the United Nations, and to Iraq.
His Vietnam War assignments are of special interest to us today. He was posted to the American Embassy in Saigon from 1964 to 1968. He was a member of the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. Ambassador Negroponte served as National Security Council director for Vietnam under Dr. Henry Kissinger from 1970 to 1973, and later as deputy national security advisor under President Reagan.
Here in Washington, Ambassador Negroponte served as assistant secretary of state for Oceans and International Environment from 1985 to 1987, and as deputy national security advisor from 1987 to 1989. He served in President George W. Bush’s cabinet from 2005 to 2007 as the first Director of National Intelligence. He was Deputy Secretary of State from 2007 to 2009.
In the private sector, Ambassador Negroponte directed McGraw-Hill’s international agenda from 1997 to 2001, and since early 2009 has been vice chairman of McLarty Associates, an international strategic advisory firm in Washington.
Twice Ambassador Negroponte received the Department of State’s Distinguished Service Medal, and President Bush awarded him the National Security Medal for his contributions to U.S. national security on January 16, 2009.
I had the distinct pleasure to be seated beside Ambassador Negroponte yesterday, a man of real Renaissance qualities, and I’m looking forward to hearing him talk today. Ambassador Negroponte, over to you.
AMBASSADOR NEGROPONTE: Thank you very much, Ed. I appreciate the kind introduction, and I’m delighted to be here today.
I thought – just to give you one of my perspectives, I thought I’d read just a few passages from some papers I wrote back in 1969. I had a – after being in the Paris Peace Talks in our delegation from May of ’68 through the summer of ’69, I was assigned as the first fellow, State Department fellow, at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. And so I wrote six papers, which I’ve never published, about my experience in Vietnam up to that point, and I thought I’d just read a few passages to you.
I wrote a paper on the negotiated solution. This is September 21, 1969. “Many of us talk about a negotiated solution to the Vietnam conflict. What is a negotiated solution? How does one go about attaining it, and is it really attainable, taking into account the realities both on the ground in Vietnam and here in the United States?”
And then towards the end of the paper – I’ll spare you the next 15 pages – I wrote, “If my pessimism about the prospects of a meaningful negotiated solution has not already become apparent, I will now state it flatly. It seems to me that virtually all of the reasonable options facing us in the coming months or years leads to outcomes sharply different and less favorable than those to which we committed ourselves several years ago. While none of us have the privilege of sitting in on meetings of Hanoi’s Politburo, I’m sure it is a fair guess that when the decision was reached to come to Paris it was made on the basis that the minimum necessary would be done to get the United States to stop the bombing and withdraw its troops, but that nothing, absolutely nothing, would be done to jeopardize its long-term goal of communizing and reuniting with the South. I think Hanoi has the resources and patience to continue to pursue the above-stated goal. Any so-called negotiated solution will likely be a face-saving camouflage of our inability to achieve in Vietnam anything resembling our initial objectives. The principal reason for this failure was precisely our underestimation of Hanoi’s resources and patience and a converse overestimation of our own.” That was one paper I wrote.
The other is a little less, in the slightly less serious vein, but it goes to an issue that’s been very dear to my heart ever since my service in Vietnam, which is the importance of language and area expertise in our foreign service. And I wrote on the subject of language because I was very taken, if you will, struck by the difficulty of communication that we had in Vietnam and the difficulty of reaching understanding with our Vietnamese interlocutors.
And I wrote here, “Perhaps the most relevant thing I can say about the Vietnamese language is that hardly any American I know speaks it.” That’s all I want to tell you about that particular section.
I then go on to explain the difficulties of learning Vietnamese, the fact that we were very late to start training our officials, and how hard the language was. I mean it’s on an order of difficulty similar to Chinese. And those of you who are Foreign Service Officers and who have studied Vietnamese or Chinese know that it takes years even to get the most rudimentary knowledge of the language. In fact, there were missionaries in Vietnam, and I was impressed by the rule of thumb that they would give us. They would frequently say that it took about 10 years for a missionary to get to the point where they really felt that they could teach religious scriptures and the kinds of things they wanted to teach in the Vietnamese language.
The nature of the war – we were talking about that yesterday in many different guises. What kind of war have we been fighting in Vietnam? I wrote this on September 29, 1969. “What kind of war have we been fighting in Vietnam? What have been our objectives? What are the nature, capabilities, and resources of the enemy? These and similar questions are ones to which we, one would have thought, clear answers would have been sought long before we committed ourselves in Vietnam to the extent we actually have. It is quite apparent, however, that it is the very absence of adequate answers to questions such as the foregoing which has led our Vietnam policy into such difficulties.”
And then I wrote a paper on the issue of what is really going on out there. That was the title of the paper. And I started that paper by saying, “Perhaps no question disturbed us more in Vietnam than that of arriving at an accurate assessment of –quote – progress – unquote in the war. The same question has nagged the American people as a whole, and it is obvious from skepticism repeatedly expressed by both right and left, Hawk and Dove, that official reporting on progress of the war has never been particularly convincing.” And that is an issue that throughout the rest of my career I found to be a very significant one, whether – with respect to the situation in Iraq or in Afghanistan or elsewhere.
Now, that was a snapshot of how I felt about our involvement in Vietnam at a particular point in time, I’d say perhaps a particularly pessimistic point in time in my own personal evolution. I think that later on my attitudes changed. In fact, I’d say that like many of us who were so much engaged in the Vietnam conflict and having worked on it for more than a decade, I’d say that I found myself pretty much all over the place over the years in terms of how I felt about the war. And those of you who worked in Saigon or elsewhere in Vietnam know how often we would spend long nights after work debating the course of the war, debating the nature of the United States involvement, debating whether – what the outcome might be. And our evenings, although as interesting and lively as they might have been, always ended up very inconclusively.
So how to think about Vietnam and how to teach our children about Vietnam? There’s so many ways to think about it. I mean, if one thinks of it in a 200-year sweep of history, then perhaps one can think of Vietnam as a country whose nationhood was interrupted by a French colonial adventure and that once the French left, the process of reestablishing complete nationhood over the entire Vietnamese territory was resumed. So I suppose that’s one way of thinking about it. And I don’t know what the history books will say a hundred or two hundred years from now.
Obviously, we can think of it as an American experience in addition to, of course, being an extremely important Vietnamese experience. And in that regard, much has been written, movies have been made, we have lived through our own agony about Vietnam. I think that’s one of the things that for those of us who were serving out there, at least for myself, I don’t think I ever had sufficient appreciation of what Vietnam was doing back here in the United States. It was kind of remote to those of us who were out there and what we felt were the front lines. And I don’t think any of us anticipated some of the issues that arose with respect to the treatment of our servicemen and some of the issues of veterans in – from – the Vietnam War had when they returned to the United States. And I guess certainly one of the lessons learned from that experience has been that I think there’s been a lot more done to try and take care of our returning veterans in the conflicts they’ve been involved in. Subsequently there are other problems, but I think certainly the attention to our veterans has improved over the decades.
And then, of course, we can look at Vietnam – and that was referred to many times yesterday, and I thought most eloquently by Ms. – by Secretary Clinton – about the current context of the United States’ bilateral relations with Vietnam, our relations with ASEAN, and our relationship with Vietnam in the framework of the overall East Asia Pacific region. Frankly, that’s the way, to the extent that I think about Vietnam today or I did in my job as Deputy Secretary of State, that was the principal way in which I thought about Vietnam.
I didn’t go back to Vietnam. We signed the Paris Peace Agreement in January of 1973 and I did not return until 2008 as Deputy Secretary of State. And it was really a very interesting experience. And I went to Hanoi for the first time. I had not been to Hanoi previously. And then I went to Ho Chi Minh City as well and I was very pleased by the welcome that I received. And everybody comments about this. I guess I first became aware of the Vietnamese desire to reach out to the United States, personally aware, and of the strong desire on the part of Vietnam to restore relations with us in 1995 during the time that I was an ambassador in the Philippines. And I struck up a friendship with the then Vietnamese ambassador in the Philippines, and I just couldn’t get over the enthusiasm that this counterpart of mine had for the United States. And of course, the difficulty that we had had up until just about that time to establish relations, reestablish relations, with Vietnam. In fact, I for one, like many others who were involved in the Vietnam conflict one way or another, really felt that we took too long to establish relations with Vietnam. I think sometimes we hold grudges for too long against our own better interests.
And I was also pleased at the time to note that some of the strongest advocates of our relationship with Vietnam were people who had been prisoners of war no less. John McCain, our first ambassador there, and so forth. So I see our relationship with Vietnam as a positive thing. I was impressed by the dynamism of the Vietnamese economy. You can’t help but be impressed by what’s happening down in Hi Chi Minh City and some of the real estate development projects, the infrastructure projects that are going on.
And frequently, when people talk about ASEAN, the ASEAN group of countries, they often list Vietnam as the most – the single most promising economic prospect at this particular point in time. I think there are other countries that have some inherent advantages but that they have not yet fully exploited, such as Indonesia. But Vietnam is in a very dynamic phase of its development, and that is a very positive thing.
The other interesting thing about the welcome I had, I happened to have married a Catholic. I’m Greek Orthodox but my wife is an English Catholic, which is somewhat of an unusual thing. And she had originally planned to come with me on that trip, had wanted to but for family reasons could not. And the reason she wanted to come was that we had met in Vietnam. Her uncle was the British ambassador to Vietnam and he had introduced me to her at a dinner party he gave in 1967. And that’s how we first met.
So she had wanted to come with me but could not. We had arranged, in the meanwhile, to go to a mass at the cathedral in Saigon, and so I stuck to that plan even though my wife wasn’t with me. And the parish priest greeted me beforehand, we had a cup of coffee, then we went to the mass. And what I thought was interesting was that before saying the mass he announced to the congregation who I was and explained that I had been (inaudible) and I’d been in Vietnam 40 years earlier and so forth. And everybody stood up and applauded me. I thought that was the nicest thing and I was a little bit surprised. My Vietnamese isn’t good enough to be able to tell whether maybe he just told them to stand up and applaud me. (Laughter.)
I want to get to – I know you all talked quite a bit about lessons learned yesterday, but I want to touch on a couple of things first, and then I do want to apply some of the experience that I gained in Vietnam to what I did later on in the Foreign Service. And of course, the reason I want to do that, and a rather significant difference, say, between the career of someone who’s 87 years old like Henry Kissinger and was a political appointee for one eight-year period, and myself, who spent 44 years in government, is that after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1973, I went on to have about 36 more years of government service off and on.
So really, I had my career ahead of me and Vietnam was a very sort of early stage experience for me. But you know people are always asking about the what-ifs in history, and some people think that’s an exercise in futility, and others kind of enjoy doing it. And I do from time to time, and I have a couple with respect to Vietnam because they were really water – it’s really a way of elucidating what I think were sort of watershed events in Vietnam’s history and from the U.S. perspective. And I suppose the most important one in my mind is what if FDR had lived longer. Franklin Roosevelt died in April of 1945 and we all know the huge debates and arguments that he had in his correspondence with Winston Churchill about the importance of the Europeans giving up their colonies after the war. And he felt very strongly about that.
And then if you look at what actually happened, what actually happened was – and Kurt Campbell made a reference to it with a number of us yesterday at our small luncheon – the European Bureau got a hold of the policy, effectively, after the war and said to Truman and the powers that be that we’ve got to help these European countries, particularly France, we ought to help them get their colonies back because it’ll be – basically, it’ll be good for their morale. I mean, that was sort of what they were arguing, and that it would make them feel good about themselves again.
And we helped France come back to Vietnam, whereas you know it’s equally plausible to think that perhaps if Roosevelt had lived another year or two that he might have said, well, yeah, this fellow Ho Chi Minh, he’s declared independence, let’s try it out. I mean, why not recognize it? I don’t know. But it, in any event, was a watershed moment.
The really big moment that I lived through was the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, which was truly a landmark event back in 1963. I was studying Vietnamese at the Foreign Service Institute at the time, but when I got out to Saigon in May of ’64 on Buddha’s birthday – I remember it was Buddha’s birthday – there was a whole group of officers, political officers and others at the embassy who were really very chagrined by what had happened. They thought that Diem was a real patriot, that he was a real nationalist who had his – his offenses had been exaggerated and exploited, and that the Buddhist movement was, the militant Buddhist movement was, frivolous and so forth. I mean, that was the view.
But perhaps more importantly, I think the view also was that he was the kind of nationalist who would have been more reluctant than his military successors, and he was mostly succeeded by military officers in positions of leadership in South Vietnam, to invite so many American troops into this country. Who knows? But it was an interesting question and very often raised.
Another – and this isn’t really a what if, but it goes more to the issue of analysis and a subject that was – became dear to my heart when I was Director of National Intelligence. And that is the good strategic analysis, not tactical intelligence and not knowing what’s going on day to day – that’s very important too, particularly when you’re in the heat of battle. But what about how much did we really understand of the Sino-Soviet split? I mean, today we all know that the Sino-Soviet differences really go all the way back to the 1950s, the late 1950s when Mao really became offended by the treatment that he felt he was being accorded by the Soviet Union.
And yet I believe that President Johnson and his administration tended to view the communist bloc as a monolith. They were, in a way, playing off their earlier experiences. And I don’t think that the fact of the Sino-Soviet split had really sunk in. A lot of it was in rhetoric or in the reduction of the size of aid missions. It wasn’t anything dramatic, and nothing so dramatic as the incident on the Ussuri River that occurred in 1969. But it was a serious split nonetheless. And you wonder whether, if we’d really appreciated that more, whether that might have created opportunities in our Vietnam policy.
And then last, of course, what if Mr. Nixon had not been undone, or undone himself, if you will, politically in 1973 and 1974?
I have a list of myths here. I just – because, again, we go to the question of, how do we teach the Vietnam War to our children and to our grandchildren? I certainly think it’s a myth that it was an unjust war. I didn’t feel that I was involved in an unjust war at the time and don’t believe so now. It’s a war we happen to have lost.
And I’ve already mentioned the question about China and Russia being a monolith.
That the Tet Offensive was a military defeat, Henry referred to that yesterday. I was struck by that – how at the time, what seemed like such a dramatic happening and how could so many provincial capitals all be attacked at the same time, and what did this say about their capability? And it really took much longer for the fact to sink in that basically, many, if not most, of the Viet Cong had been killed during that particular episode and that it had really actually helped contribute to an atmosphere of security throughout the South Vietnamese countryside for the next couple of years.
The myth that the ARVN, that the South Vietnamese army, was hopeless – I think they got pretty good, frankly. I thought the way they dealt with the – what we called the Easter Offensive in 1972, several of their divisions, at least, acquitted themselves extremely well.
And I don’t know if it’s a myth. I mean, I think maybe it’s a little more nuanced than that, but the question of whether the Government of South Vietnam was a corrupt and failed government. I – compared to a number of governments I’ve dealt with in subsequent years, I’ve got to say that I found, based on my recollection, the Government of South Vietnam a perfectly normal developing country government, if you will. It had weaknesses, but it also had strengths. It certainly had a structure, a functioning structure, throughout the country and institutions that were reasonably healthy, none of which in the end could withstand a conventional assault from outside of their border.
The lessons learned, and this really goes to the question of Iraq and Afghanistan and many subsequent experiences for me, but I guess it’s pretty simple. Be careful before you take the first step, because once you get in, then you just – you lose a little bit of control about the next ones and the consequences. And it becomes harder to decide to disengage. And you create expectations. I mean, the United States is still the United States. We’re still, even with all the troubles we have today, we’re still the most powerful country in the world. People still look to us to provide – to play a leadership role around the world, and we undertake a commitment. People have a reasonable right to expect that we will carry through on it. So I think that’s really the most important lesson, from my point of view.
And I would venture to you that after Afghanistan, however that unfolds, I think you’re going to see another period of the – sort of the Vietnam syndrome, another 20, 30 years, where, if – and maybe even longer before we ever are willing to commit American forces abroad in that kind of a conflict on such a large scale.
And my next point. I guess, is pretty much related to it, and Henry said it yesterday; when you’re in one of these situations, you need great clarity of purpose and a thorough understanding of both the local situation and the surrounding international circumstances. Easy to say; harder, perhaps, to do.
I had the honor and the privilege to be Colin Powell’s deputy when he was the National Security Advisor. And I’d been a diplomat in Vietnam, and about the same time – you can read it in his own autobiography – he’d been an advisor to an ARVN unit up in First Corps. I happen to have been, for part of my career, consul – acting consul in Hue. So I even knew that territory a bit. But he felt very strongly about this. You know that. The Powell Doctrine, it was shaped, really, by his Vietnam experience. And he really carried it out. I was amazed. During the Gulf War in 1990, I mean, laser-like in terms of his purpose, and also in terms of building up sufficient force so that he was – to deal with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in such a way that victory was assured and rapid victory was assured. I mean, there was no ifs, ands, or buts. Of course, the Vietnam type situation was very different.
I think another one of the lessons that I took from Vietnam, and directly, was I felt that we started our Vietnamization program much too late. With all respect for the late General Westmoreland, I think his fundamental mistake was that he really wanted all the fighting to be done, the real serious fighting with the North Vietnamese units, wanted it to be done by American troops. I sat at mission council meetings in the embassy in Saigon – they were presided over by Ellsworth Bunker – when Westy briefed us on his strategy. I – must have been 1967 or so. And he was talking about the U.S. troops being in the middle, the North Vietnamese troops being out there and the South Vietnamese villages down here with the ARVN protecting the populated areas. And I heard the presentation and I said to myself that this has got to be a prescription for just our indefinite involvement here.
Abrams came too late, regrettably. I mean, talk about another “what if.” I mean, if LBJ – apparently, he debated whether to choose Abrams or Westmoreland in 1964 when he replaced Paul Harkins as commander. And if he had chosen Abrams, we might have had a different strategy in Vietnam, and that might have made some difference, at least to the extent of our troop involvement.
But like a broken record, subsequently with respect to Afghanistan, with respect to Iraq, I’ve – I was one of the ones who has always been pounding the table for the Iraqization, the Afganization. You know, what are you doing to train the local forces, the local police, the local military to take this on as quickly as possible?
Just to give you one very concrete example, when I went to Iraq as the first sort of post-occupation ambassador, I had been asked to review our $17 billion reconstruction program. And I found, my goodness, we’re not in a reconstruction phase. This is now July of – June, July of 2004 – we’re still – we have an incipient insurgency here, and it’s actually getting worse, not better. I mean, it’s – reconstruction is simply the wrong term, and we’ve just got to divert more resources to training. There was one army battalion. The army had been dissolved, you may recall, the Iraqi army, and there was one army battalion in existence, and we were starting to try and cobble together a new Iraqi army, and I got – I persuaded Washington that we needed to reprogram about $3 billion of those funds to the training and equipping of the Iraqi army and police, because whatever you think about rural development, pacification, different types of civil programs, you can’t carry them out if you don’t have security. It’s just as simple as that. And you don’t want to be in a position of the United States itself being responsible for providing that security for an indefinite period of time.
I advocated the same in regard to Afghanistan, right after we went into Afghanistan. But there again, we were late to start that. And it’s, I’d say, only in the last couple of years that we’ve gotten really serious about it. But to the extent that we get involved in these kinds of situations, it seems to me that a lot more thought, effort, and resources has got to be devoted to building local capabilities.
Certainly, another point is the question – and it’s really, again, about the question of looking before you leap, be careful before you take the first step, thinking of other ways to apply United States power and influence, whether it’s through what I just talked about, the training of local forces, covert action, if you will, sometimes may be an answer. Working through the United Nations, I mean, the UN gets a bum rap in this country, and we pay 26 cents on the dollar to support UN peacekeeping forces. And I can give you specific examples of where they’ve been successful in helping restore peace and tranquility to various situations. Sierra Leone, to mention only one, which was a basket case in 2001 and where the government’s writ extended just a few miles within the capital of that country. And three, four years later, the writ of the government extended back throughout the entirety of Sierra Leone. And in large measure, that was due to a UN peacekeeping operation.
But we have – whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, it doesn’t matter – we have a mindset that says, oh, they can’t possibly do it as well as we do. Well, that’s probably true, but they might be able to do it well enough. And secondly, they will certainly be able to do it at considerably less cost in blood and treasure to the people and Government of the United States. So I, for one – I feel like I’ve always been a little bit of a voice in the wilderness on this, but I think that we ought to devote more effort on the part of our government, including our military, to thinking about how can we make UN peacekeeping efforts more effective. How can we can we give them training and so forth that would help make them better? And I think we’ve done some of that, but I think we could do a lot more.
The organization of the United States Government effort – now, you could get totally lost in this subject for weeks on end if you wanted to, and I think there are a couple of things I would say. First of all, nation building and all of these activities are really very hard. And it’s not obvious that someone from the United States or from the United Kingdom or from France or from some other – some former colonial power can really go and help countries establish good governance in Africa, Asia, Latin America, or wherever. I think that the efforts to have influence have got to be very carefully thought out and focused. And interestingly, we kind of reinvent the wheel every time we go through one of these efforts. I’ve been through a bunch of them now. I mean, it’s not only Vietnam. I mean, I’ve been to Central America and Iraq. I’ve watched Afghanistan. And each one is kind of sui generis in the way we’ve gone about it.
But I do have some thoughts on the way we organize here in Washington for this kind of effort. And here’s one area where I think we were actually better organized in Vietnam than we have been since, and that is in terms of our A-I-D effort. I mean, A-I-D is today a shadow of its former self. It’s a fraction the size it used to be. And if other U.S. Government agencies wanted to give assistance in the good old days, so to speak, they basically had to do it through A-I-D. And A-I-D was substantial. They had four or five thousand people in Vietnam, maybe more. At one point in its heyday, A-I-D had a total of 10- or 11,000 personnel, and today it’s really a fraction of that. And what’s happened in lieu of the old A-I-D is that our assistance effort across the government has been atomized, or it’s been subdivided so that when – well, first we abolished the public safety program in A-I-D because that was kind of a politically taboo thing back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so we stopped giving police assistance.
When the refugee crisis arose, the boat people came out of Vietnam, we created a different bureau in the Department. We said, well, we didn’t – we weren’t going to ask A-I-D to do this. We set up a refugee bureau, and that was a couple of billion dollars a year right there. Then, during the Central America conflict, we discovered that, well, maybe we do need to be able to train people in law enforcement and those kinds of things after all, and so we set up an international narcotics and law enforcement bureau in the Department of State, and there goes another one or two billion a year. And then in the Bush Administration, we created the Millennium Challenge Account, which some of you have no doubt heard of or been involved with. Plus we had special programs to assist the former Soviet Union, also not under A-I-D. And then, of course, we’ve got this mass of monies that we’re giving in the struggle against HIV-AIDS in Africa and elsewhere under the PEPFAR program. So I’m just suggesting to you that maybe we’ve now atomized our assistance efforts in such a way that it’s very hard to direct them towards a strategic purpose.
Now, some people who maybe value development for development’s sake – and there is a school of thought that would make that argument – well, it’s just intrinsically a good thing to do – may not care about our inability to sort of zero in with the whole range of our assistance efforts. But I actually think this is one area where the American effort in Vietnam was probably – worked better.
The Foreign Service personnel system, I have to say a little bit about this, since I was the Deputy Secretary of State. And I can’t quite remember which year it was, but I believe it was 1965, where LBJ called up the State Department or spoke to Mr. Rusk – I don’t know how he went about it, but he said, “I want you to assign every entering class of the Foreign Service to Vietnam.” And so there’s a whole generation of officers from that period. I was already in Vietnam, but there was a whole generation just a few years behind me that just came en masse to Vietnam and created a real generational experience, if you will, for the Foreign Service, which carried forward and had a lot of influence in sort of the personnel setup in this building for a number of years after that. I mean, people who’d served in Vietnam, I think, tended to generally do better for having gone out there. A number of people, not many, a few quit the service rather than go to Vietnam. And I met one or two during that period who really were desperately sad about having done that and were trying to get back into the Service, and the Department didn’t take them back in. And it created a certain amount of heartburn. But by and large, I think it was a positive experience for this building and for the Service.
I came up against this myself, both as Ambassador to Iraq and then as Deputy Secretary of State. How do you get people, without ordering them to Iraq, to serve in Iraq? And we, at least during my time, I don’t think we’ve done it yet, we’ve never resorted to directed assignments. We managed to, through cajoling, persuasion, what have you, we persuaded people to volunteer for service in Iraq. And I was very proud of that record, although I think people knew that I was also ready to order them to Iraq if I couldn’t get enough volunteers. And maybe the credibility of my own service in Vietnam and the fact that I’d been ambassador and volunteered from my position as ambassador to the United Nations to be ambassador to Iraq gave me a little added credibility with the system.
And Vietnam influenced me a great deal on the value of reporting. I’d been a provincial reporter. That’s the job I had when I first got to Saigon. I covered six provinces, was basically coastal II Corps. There was group of seven – six or seven of us in the political section. We divided up the country. It had 42 – South Vietnam had 42 provinces and we each covered six or seven of them. We’d go out one week, do our reports, come back, spend the next week in Saigon, write up our reports and so forth, a lot of them by not even telegrams in those days. Sometimes, we wrote what were called airgrams. They were airmailed messages that I don’t think exist anymore, and haven’t for years in the Department of State. And I wrote lots and lots of those. I wrote a whole series documenting the decline in security at Coastal II Corps, particularly in Binh Dinh and in Phu Yen provinces, because it was a very desperate situation then, in the fall of 1964 and the beginning of 1965. I mean, the first North Vietnamese units had come into the country in the summer of 1964.
I don’t know if it’s been raised at this meeting or at others, but John Helble was our consul in Hue in 1964, and the consulate had the authority to report directly to Washington in those days, and it would send its copies of its telegrams to Saigon. And in June or July – I think it was July – of ’64, John reported that the 1st ARVN division had captured a couple of enlisted men from a North Vietnamese army unit. I mean, identified the unit and so forth. And he sent that to Washington with a copy to us, and we all came in the morning and we read our telegraphic traffic and said wow, look at this. And it might not come as an entire surprise to you that Washington’s reaction to that message was to take John Helble’s authority to report directly to Washington away from him – (laughter) – and that henceforth, any such explosive news needed to be coursed through the embassy in Saigon, which in turn would decide whether or not to pass it on to Washington.
It was a particularly delicate time because it was a political campaign and we had been informally told by some people close to the White House that Mr. Johnson really didn’t particularly care for any Vietnam surprises during the summer and autumn of 1964. Interesting in a way because things changed rather dramatically the minute he got elected, and our approach to Vietnam took a very, very different course.
But I felt from my provincial reporting experience that it was really invaluable, and I think it’s still an invaluable function of diplomacy to have people on the ground who know the language, know the area, develop contacts, get that feel for a local situation that you can only do through being physically present. And I always told ambassadors when they went off to assignments, I told entering classes of the Foreign Service – I see I’m really burning up my time here; I’m sorry – that one of the great value-adds of the Foreign Service is our knowledge, our language and area expertise abroad. And when I attended National Security Council meetings as director of National Intelligence and I looked around the table, apart from our military colleagues, who always have had some high-ranking military colleagues have always had some overseas experience – apart from them, I usually was the only other person at the table who had lived abroad. So this is an important perspective that people who work in this building and in our embassies and consulates around the world can bring to the table.
I guess I’d better stop there just to allow a little bit of time for questions. Ed, I’m sorry I went on too long.
AMBASSADOR BRYNN: No, that’s great. Thank you very much. That’s great. (Applause.)
We have time for a few questions, and we’ll follow the format that we did yesterday. I think we have people with the microphones on the side. If you’ll raise your hand, our good people will get the microphone to you. Let’s start. We have about 10 minutes.
QUESTION: Yes, Ambassador Negroponte, you’re quoted, or at least it’s often said that you’re quoted in a Tad Szulc argument – or article about the Vietnam Paris peace talks as having said about the Christmas bombing that we bombed them into accepting our concessions. I’m wondering if you would talk briefly about your role in the Paris peace talks –
AMBASSADOR NEGROPONTE: I did say that, by the way. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Okay – if you want to talk about your role in the Paris peace talks and whether you agreed with Secretary of State Kissinger’s comment about the decent interval or about whether, in fact, there was an opportunity to make the Paris agreement actually effective.
AMBASSADOR NEGROPONTE: Well, first of all, yes, I did say what you – you asked me what my role was. Well, I was, of course, the director for Vietnam for the National Security Council, and in that capacity I got to travel around with Dr. Kissinger. I think I took something like 25 trips to Paris in 1972 and went to Beijing with him, I went to Moscow a couple of times, attended – the Vietnam question was so predominant in our foreign policy that a president and a national security advisor had to travel around with their Vietnam expert wherever they went. It got me into some fairly interesting meetings and situations. But my role was one of supporting Dr. Kissinger. I was 30-something years old. I was 33, I guess. I certainly was not his strategist and not a thought leader, if you will. I was staff and so I don’t think I had – I didn’t really have much input into strategy. I did not share – definitely did not share that feeling that Dr. Kissinger was talking about yesterday on October 8th, 1972, when Le Duc Tho presented his draft on ending the war and restoring peace in Vietnam. I did not believe that that was a particularly hopeful moment.
I think I read you a little bit of a precursor of that in this 1969 piece that I had written three years earlier. And I was deeply uncomfortable about where this was leading us. I was particularly bothered by the fact that we – they’d done it to – this was the second time that Hanoi had done this to us, presenting proposals in October of a presidential election year. By the way, that’s another lesson learned. Try to avoid negotiating in October of an election year – (laughter) – on behalf of the United States. I’m not kidding. I mean, seriously, one ought to be careful. I mean, they knew what they were doing. I mean, I think Le Duc Tho said something like, “You’re in a hurry, aren’t you?” I mean – and we were. And instead of just saying, well, this is very interesting – and I became pretty much a professional negotiator after that, not on things like Vietnam; I became a fisheries negotiator. For a while, I was the deputy assistant secretary for Oceans and Fisheries. So I got some real on the job training on a subject obviously not of earthshaking strategic importance, but it taught me a lot of lessons.
But certainly, one of them is when you get an important proposal, say, “Thank you very much. I’ve got to take it home and show it to my – to everybody else.” But we didn’t do that, and we negotiated over that – I think it was a weekend; I can’t remember now – from the 8th to the 11th or 12th, and we were in a big hurry. Mr. Kissinger had a scenario where he’d already worked it out in his mind that we were going to go to Saigon and then we were going to go to Hanoi on the 21st or so of October. And it was – the ceasefire was for some strange reason going to go into effect about a day or two before our election.
So I think just caution – you’ve got to take it back home and show it to everybody. We didn’t really do that. And October 11th, 12th, we finish and we conclude the text, and it really didn’t change that much then through all its subsequent iterations. I mean, what we left with from Paris in the morning of – or whatever time it was – October 11th or 12th, it took – to take to Washington, is essentially the text we signed on January 23rd, whatever that was, four or three months later. So, no, I didn’t – I was not optimistic. And the thing was that Saigon never really got an input, and I think that really caused us serious problems with the Government of South Vietnam.
AMBASSADOR BRYNN: This should probably be the last question. Who has the microphone? Okay.
QUESTION: I’m very interested in your comments about the need for language skills, and I’m wondering, were we noticeably better at Vietnamese language in the late stages of the Vietnam War than we had been in the early stages? And were we any better in Iraq when you were ambassador to Iraq?
AMBASSADOR NEGROPONTE: I think that first part – the answer to the first part of your question is I believe we were noticeably better. Maybe not in terms of high-level proficiency, but in terms of having run a lot of people through some kind of rudimentary course in Vietnamese. And I certainly met some people later on in my time who really spoke very beautiful Vietnamese.
The answer to your question about Iraq is basically no, we were not any better off at the beginning. We are now. I mean, now it’s a huge priority for this Department and for the intelligence community to have a lot of people – and that’s been plussed up by an order of magnitude, I believe. But you know we need a constant reminder to keep up these skills, to invest in these skills. And here’s the great professional deformity of the Department of State, which is there’s a kind of a mindset normally that thinks, well, you know, on the job training is the best training you can have. And so unlike the military, we do not reserve a certain amount of space, if you will, what we call the training float, so that you’ll say that at any given time, say, 10 percent of my officers will be doing some kind of training. We don’t do enough of that, and we need more of a budget to do it. And we’re always having to sacrifice that to meet some more urgent, though not necessarily more important, needs. So I think as we look forward in years ahead, we’ve got to start thinking more, in terms of our personnel development, like the military does. And I guess if I were to say it in one word, it would be – two words, it would be training float.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
AMBASSADOR BRYNN: Thank you. Thank you, Ambassador. This is a gentleman who has seen every side of the American foreign policy effort over an extraordinarily long period of time. I was really impressed by the prescient documents that he put together at the Hoover Institution. I was at the same time laboring in “history corner,” which was just a few blocks – a few feet away. And I do have to remind him that, remember, he was at Leland Stanford Junior University, and I’ve been often asked, what is the difference between a junior university and a regular university? And you probably have been asked that, too. Thank you very much, sir. That was great. (Applause.)